Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Football's Cognitive Disconnect

Here is the real problem with the NFL's violence problem: The entire game is built on it.

It defies logic and reason to suggest that adding 2 games to the season would be particularly debilitating -- not when players are being crushed in Week 1, Week 6... every week.

And it's not just about the dangerous hit that causes a concussion today -- it's about the 1,000 hits over a year or career that cause debilitating health years after the career is over.

I wrote something this morning about this that has stuck with me. The NFL's injury issue has two prongs:

(1) The cumulative effect. The violence of the game takes years off of players' lives. It erodes post-career quality of living. There is a long-term cost.

And fans and media have almost entirely ignored this for years. This isn't about encepholopathy; we have known for decades that NFL players have shorter life expectancies and late-life issues.

(2) The "jacked up!" effect. These are the singular moments -- the individual hits (like DeSean Jackson on Sunday, or the two hits by a necessarily unrepentant James Harrison -- that make the injury issue far more acute.

For years, these hits were celebrated -- even glorified. I think we'll look back on the "Jacked Up!" segment as one of the single most horrifying pieces of programming in sports TV history.

Now: Lamentation? Recrimination?

We hear: "There's no place in the game for THAT." For what? For big hits? For injuries? Those have been the basis of the game throughout its modern era.

More substantial penalties for dangerous hits -- 30-yard fouls, instant ejections, suspensions -- won't solve the problem. They might actually only bring even more critical attention to it.

The reality is that the game is fundamentally dangerous. This isn't steroids in baseball; this is suspending our disbelief in order to cheer on some pretty violent stuff. We all do it.

But at some point, the cognitive disconnect becomes too big: For fans, and especially for sports media.

If you're rooting for the Falcons, you cheer the hit on DeSean Jackson for a nano-second, right up until you realize the guy has been decimated. That the single hit you were just cheering might have taken a year or two off the guys' life; it almost certainly has wiped at least some portion of his memories from his synapses forever.

You don't articulate it to yourself like this; you just feel... iffy.

The sport has never been more popular. I reject the arguments that football will eventually suffer the fate of boxing.

And there will always be a pipeline of athletes willing to risk destroying their physical selves, long-term, for the rewards of playing pro football.

I am at a loss to predict how that any change to our relationship with the game manifests itself. Again: The sport has never been more popular -- even as it has never been more dangerous. (I don't causally connect those two.)

I guess I simply wonder how taut the cognitive disconnect can be stretched before it degrades in a meaningful way.

PS: Check out this great piece by Dave Zirin: "There is no making football safer."

-- D.S.

1 comment:

Steve Sprague said...

This post is beyond idiotic in the beginning. You continue to see no problem in extending the season by 2 games? Why? Because Desean Jackson was laid out in week 6?!?!?!

Your argument defies comprehension already, and then you discredit your own argument in the next paragraph. The danger is in the cumulative total, and that cumulative effect is made worse when the concussions and blows to the head happen closer together.

In an 18 game season each player will be subjected to about 15% more hits each season. Assuming their overall career length is not greatly shortened this will be a huge cumulative effect on the players. The bottom line is that 18 games doesn't make sense. No one except for you and the owners seems to be making this point.

As far as can you make football safer? Yes! These are not "text book" tackles as several meat heads such as Mike Golic are claiming. A text book tackle has you hitting a guy in the midsection and wrapping him up. Look at the James Harrison hits. He makes no effort whatsoever to wrap up the other player. Same thing for the head hunter from the Pats, his name escapes me right now, and Dunta Robinson. They came flying in and led with their head.